A draft law of the Ministry for Women’s Affairs asks for moral guards to control private celebrations
Wedding ceremonies have become ruinous for many Afghans. A new law now aims at limiting the expenses. The good intention of the initiative is tarnished, however, because the draft at the same time sanctions heavy governmental interference into personal affairs. Ten years after the fall of the Taliban, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs revives the institution of moral guards. Citizens will not be allowed to celebrate what they want, and women may not choose how to dress in these events. Apparently this is another initiative of the government to cater to conservative trends in society.
By Bente Aika Scheller.
A sigh of relief is often the first reaction when talking about the now circulating draft of the new marriage law. In recent years, a spiral of ever increasing expenses for weddings has haunted Afghanistan’s youth. Many young men get heavily indebted for covering not only the bride price but for renting shiny and colourful wedding halls, for buying gifts and dresses and hosting hundreds of guests. One of the long-term projects of HBS has been addressing this problem early on: A research of the Women and Children Legal Research Foundation already several years ago showed a relation between higher wedding prices and domestic violence. The social and financial pressure on grooms and their families often generate the feeling of having “bought” the bride so she is treated accordingly.
Therefore, an initiative of the government to set a limit for prices and number of invitees resonates well. Less welcome than this intention, however, is that once started, there are no limits to the desire of the state to dictate the details of what and how people may celebrate. “Eliminating the customs and traditions that are contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam” is the first objective stipulated in the law. While deeply religious, the majority of the Afghan population prides itself also of a broad variety of age-old local customs. Now, the state wants to interfere both with modern as well as inherited habits. Among the occasions that may not be celebrated are “celebrations of ceremonies such as engagement, kakul giri (shaving of the hairs of child for the first time), circumcision feast or returning from hajj (pilgrimage) or on graduation, neither at home nor in a hall”.
When it comes to the expenses, the law gives not only an overall limit but also regulates which part of the ceremony may come at what price. A wedding dress may cost no more than 5000 Afghani (about 80 EUR), and municipalities are supposed to make sure that for the menu including fruit and beverages, a maximum of 250 Afs is being spent – not even four Euro. Food is important in Afghan culture and Afghan hospitality a question of honour to comfort guests and aim for good quality. Even for a carefully planned home-wedding outside Kabul, though, the estimates per menu per person start at 300 Afs, and most people prefer not to taste the quality of food that will be served in wedding halls with this tough price limit.
The paragraphs that drive women’s rights activists to the barricades is that even though the new law categorically mandates gender segregation in the celebrations, neither the bride nor the guests will be allowed to wear “garments contrary to Islamic sharia”. The authors of this law seem to have little confidence, though, that the audience knows what that would be, since they continue this “refers to outfits that are semi-naked, naked, transparent, or tight in a way that reveals parts of the woman’s body.” This detailed account provokes the question whether addressing it specifically to women means that men will be entitled to go semi-naked or worse, not least because also later on it says the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is obliged “to enlighten the minds of people, especially women, to observe the provisions of this law.”
Interestingly it is the very same Ministry of Women’s Affairs that has taken the initiative to formulate this law. It is another attempt to cater to conservative social trends as was the offensive against women shelters a few weeks ago which also stemmed from the Ministry of Women Affairs. Instead of taking its task of advocating for women’s interests and protecting women’s rights seriously, the ministry opts for the contrary thus paving the way for Taliban-style ideology to permeate all spheres of life.
Those in favour of the law argue that there are many rumours in rural areas concerning immoral celebrations in the big cities. The law here supposedly is meant as a tool to curb this kind of rumours. Instead of lobbying among citizens for the fact that not ever social norm needs to be pinned down as a law and that the changes taking place in the weddings are the personal choice of other citizens – as bridal fashion, for example – governmental institutions show a pre-emptive obedience to conservative trends. The commitment with which marginal affairs like these are approached is out of proportion with the totally different political challenges Afghanistan is facing.
Women’s rights groups and activists are in discussion with the Ministry of Justice to amend the law before it is passed on to the cabinet or the parliament. It would be interesting to see, however, who in parliament would support this new law: hardly any prominent family in Afghanistan restrains itself to a modest wedding and also other festive occasions are considered a good opportunity to be used for networking. When recently an MP celebrated the 6th night of birth of a child, this was celebrated in Afghanistan’s only five-star hotel and the list of invitees – on this occasion normally restricted to family members – also included ministers and ambassadors.
“Legislation has to be done in a way that makes it possible to implement it. If it cannot be implemented, it is not manageable in practice. Second, laws with a number of detailed stipulations contradicting each other create the danger of the judiciary being ridiculed,” an Afghan lawyer remarks. In that regard the heavy fines foreseen for those who are complicit in circumventing the legislation might attract most mockery. Tailors producing inadequate dresses will be fined at first, temporarily closed on the second occasion and for a third offence lose their business license. Inappropriate bridal dresses may not be sold or rented. Even the Ministry of Economy and the Chamber of Commerce are supposed to get involved to prevent the import of such hazardous goods (1).
As long as citizens are faced with life-threatening imported goods on a daily basis – improper fuel, gas balloons that are not according to security standards or forged medical products – the call for taking action particularly against importing morally debated clothes seems like a bitter joke.
The initiative will please conservative minds but it is generally assumed that there are also financial interests at play. “In a neighbouring country it was once decreed that only one dish may be served at a wedding. When the police found more than one dish, they took the other away,” one colleague diplomatically remarks. Another one comes straight to the point: “It is a door-opener for forged accounting. Those in charge might in exchange for certain payments be willing to turn a blind eye.”
Apart from the official monitors appointed by the government, hotel owners are requested to serve as the spearhead of implementing the new regulations, including to “prevent participants from filming the event.” “Normally people would like to have a memory of their wedding day,” a Kabul resident remarks. “But maybe people will not like to have memories of a wedding held according to these standards."
(1) Another fact to put things into perspective: Military uniforms have been used repeatedly by suicide bombers and insurgents to deceive the public and allow them undisturbed access to public places and military facilities. Despite this being a severe and long-known threat to the citizens physical integrity, only after the attack on the Ministry of Defence on April 14, the Ministry of Interior’s speaker Mr. Bashari declared that efforts to “stop the sale of military equipment and uniforms in markets” were underway. Please check: http://outlookafghanistan.net/news.php?post_id=287
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